VCU ER doctor urges patience as hospitals prepare for spike in COVID-19 cases

Posted at 6:11 PM, Dec 02, 2020
and last updated 2020-12-02 18:15:23-05

RICHMOND, Va. -- Emergency rooms and hospitals across Virginia are preparing for an expected surge of coronavirus cases following the Thanksgiving holiday, when many Virginians traveled and/or gathered with family and friends despite warnings from health experts.

Dr. Stephen Miller, an ER physician and educator at VCU Medical Center, said his team is running scenarios similar to the beginning of the pandemic, where elective and other procedures were put on hold to focus resources toward COVID-19 patients.

Dr. Miller said they are anticipating a spike in cases, but the number is unknown at this point.

"To what degree? I don’t know right now. As a department, as a health care system, we are certainly putting every effort into making those resources available in anticipating that growing level,” Dr. Miller said. "It’s winter time anyways. Our hospital system is usually high volume and a lot of admissions just in a normal year.”

Unlike the Virginians who traveled or gathered during the holiday, Dr. Miller’s family of four spent their time on Zoom and FaceTime calls.

“It was definitely disappointing, but we made the most of it,” he said. “There are no great answers. Everybody has to sort of take that individual responsibility. There is definitely a bit of disappointment because, for us when we look at doing our job, keeping those numbers as low as possible, it allows us not only to treat COVID patients but non-COVID patients. The normal emergencies that come through: strokes, heart attacks, those types of things.”

As of December 2, the seven-day average of new cases reported each day in Virginia remains around 2,000 and the percentage of positive tests statewide is at over 8%. Health experts said because of the testing results lag time, post-Thanksgiving cases have not been recorded yet.

While the Commonwealth has fared better than other parts of the country, Dr. Miller and his colleagues continue to see the human toll of the virus here.

“Just recently, I had not just one patient come in but it was a whole family. It was an elderly father, his wife, and their daughter,” he said. “It was a situation where you had three people in different rooms and all of them worried about each other.”

“All of them needed to be hospitalized. It was one of those things where it came on very fast for them. As they describe it, they been trying to do the right things, and this got hold of them, got in their family and had a huge impact.”

That impact stretches to the thousands of healthcare workers treating COVID patients daily for the past eight months.

Miller said he thinks about his family and his post-work routine every single day.

“It’s the little things. I just saw three or four COVID patients on shift. Am I going to bring this home to them? Am I going to expose and be that kind of source? It’s a controllable fear, but it’s always sort of there in the background,” Dr. Miller said.

Eight months into restrictions and guidelines aimed at mitigating the spread of the virus, Dr. Miller said he can understand why some people might tire of following along. However, he said his daily work experience outweighs that thought for him.

“I have a 2nd grader and a kindergartner; we’re doing virtual schooling. My wife is a high school teacher, so we are facing the challenges that have been presented this year,” he said. “But I do have the other side that I see on a regular basis where this is a disease process that can devastate folks.”

Dr. Miller said the outlook is not entirely bleak: vaccines are on the horizon and medical knowledge about COVID-19 coteries to grow. Still, he said it makes it ever more important for everyone in Central Virginia to remain vigilant.

“Everybody might be tired of hearing about COVID. Well, COVID is impacting all of the other medical conditions. If we are doing the responsible thing, and protecting ourselves from COVID, that allows us as medical providers to take care of the non-COVID related illness,” he said. “There definitely is hope, and light at the end of the tunnel, but it’s going to take time. We need to continue to do the things we know that are effective.”

VCU Health recently produced a video filled with testimonials from local healthcare workers who have been on the front lines of battling COVID-19. You can watch their stories here.